Pushing the limits of science

Andrew Pinsent, who is a physicist and priest, and is research director of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion, talks about the fine-tuning of the universe, the possibility of multiverses, and how a theory of everything would not account for everything. Interview by Nigel Bovey.

When did you become interested in science?

When I was young, I used to read a book my father had on atomic physics. I was interested in space. I wanted to become an astronaut, but in the 1970s there weren’t any British astronauts. Career-wise, I decided that physics was the best way to keep my options open. I studied physics at Oxford and then branched into particle physics. So instead of studying the very large things, such as stars and galaxies, I ended up doing the opposite, studying very small things – atoms, nuclei and their constituent particles.

You have worked at CERN, the home of Europe’s Large Hadron Collider. What were you doing there?

CERN is where European scientists, now joined by many others, pool their resources to build very large machines to study very small objects. We work on the scale of less than one ten-millionth of the diameter of an atom.

We also recreate the conditions of the early universe, when many of the forces of nature that are very different today were more obviously interconnected. As the universe expanded, it became more complex and varied.

There are two parts to this work – to create high-energy collisions and to detect what happens when matter collides. As a graduate student, I was working on the DELPHI detector, analysing the products of these collisions.

The discovery at CERN of the Higgs boson made headline news. What is it and how important is it?

The Higgs boson is one of those subatomic particles that we detect only by its decay signal. It is important, as it was the last missing piece that makes up a modern periodic table of subatomic particles and their forces.

Why is it called ‘the God particle’?

To sell books. The story goes that a publisher needed a catchy title for a book on particle physics and the name stuck. Beyond being another part of creation, it has nothing more directly to do with God.

Photo of Andrew Pinsent, Research Director of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion

At what point did faith become meaningful for you?

I was brought up in a Christian family, but since then I have had to take responsibility for my own faith. As a child, I wasn’t always enthusiastic about going to church. When I was 12, I had a revelation that Christianity is true. Since then, I have never doubted the truth of the Christian faith.

Have you ever had doubts about Christianity?

I have had plenty of difficulties but no doubts.

You’ve never doubted the presence or the personhood of God?

I’ve always had an absolute conviction of the existence of God. Particle physics tends to reinforce that conviction. Physicists get to look at creation at the foundational level – at those aspects of creation where there’s only one cause.

Detractors say that a person can either be a good scientist or a good Christian but not both.

The simplest way to respond is through counter-examples. The inventor of the big bang theory, for example, was Georges Lemaître, a Belgian priest. His solving of Einstein’s equations to predict the expansion of the universe was, at the time, shocking. The principles of genetics were discovered by Gregor Mendel, a Moravian monk. There are many other counter-examples that refute the naive conflict metaphor.

At a deeper level, certain types of religious faith have been instrumental in the development of science. The UK’s oldest universities, including Oxford, Cambridge and St Andrews, for instance, were founded as Christian institutions.

Christianity has also helped to defend the value of knowledge for its own sake. It regards the world as God’s creation. It says that the God of love, order and law created a world of order and law, and that we are able to explore and see order in creation. Such insights have helped scientific enterprise to be so fruitful.

If anything is going to kill science, it will be materialism, not faith. That might sound strange, as materialism is often regarded as being synonymous with science. But when society’s only standard of value is material good, then eventually we will not spend time doing things that are not of material value, including most of the kinds of knowledge sought by science.

To what extent can you prove that there is a God?

Even in mathematics, there’s a limit to what you can prove. You have to take certain things as given – axioms, that are taken on trust. That’s also true of life. There are all kinds of things I know about the world that I take on trust and cannot actually prove. If someone demands what philosophers term ‘formal certainty’ of God’s existence, then, by the same standard, they will have to dismiss almost all knowledge.

If, however, one were to adopt the commonsense certainty that most people are prepared to live with, then I am happy to point to the cosmological argument for the existence of God, which argues that the existence of all the dependent or caused beings of the universe is strong evidence for the existence of a first uncaused cause or ‘God’.

Believing that there is a foundational first cause is not the same as having a living faith in Jesus Christ. I’ve always been struck by the fruitful lives of the saints, such as Mother Teresa. I want at least some of what they have. There is credibility in a life that God has transformed; it becomes an icon of God’s love and points to his existence.

Do you regard the apparent fine-tuning of the universe as evidence of God?

It is certainly intriguing. The parameters that allow for the universe to exist are very finely tuned. For example, if the ratio between electromagnetism and the gravitational force were changed by about one part in 1039, we wouldn’t have yellow stars such as the Sun. Or if a certain nuclear resonance were changed very slightly, carbon, which is essential for any complex molecules, wouldn’t exist and nor would life as we know it.

There are many other parameters that seem to be arbitrarily determined. If they had even slightly different values we wouldn’t be here. At present, there is no satisfactory naturalistic answer that explains why the universe has these particular values.

One possible approach is to claim that our universe has this set of parameters simply because of an automatic, random selection out of a vast number of alternative, mostly lifeless universes, where there are different sets of values. This is the multiverse idea.

Another possible approach is to say that the universe only appears to be finely tuned and there are underpinning laws that force these parameters to be the way they are. That’s an open question. We don’t know if there are any laws like that. We’re looking for them.

From a theological point of view, I think the state of the cosmos is suggestive of a creator, but just to say that God did it that way is not very satisfying. Equally, if the universe didn’t have the appearance of fine-tuning, then that would not mean that God did not create it.

If the universe is finely tuned for life, it must also be finely tuned for death. There is cosmic decay. The Earth will die. Its carbon-based inhabitants die. If we look for happiness only in the here and now, we are not going to find it.

To what extent do some atheists use the multiverse as an alternative explanation to God?

The multiverse idea can be a comforting narrative from a naturalistic perspective that seeks to exclude God. But what is the multiverse? It’s an omnipotent first cause of all things that exist that is itself uncaused. In other words, we’re back to God (in a sense). Indeed, more generally, the idea of an uncaused first cause (‘God’) is quite natural to the pattern of scientific thinking, which searches for an ever-smaller number of ever-more-powerful causes. The real question is not the existence of God but, ‘What is God?’

In the film about Professor Stephen Hawking, The Theory of Everything, there’s a line that runs: ‘Cosmology is the religion of intelligent atheists.’ Is it?

If it is, it wasn’t always like that. Initially, atheists regarded cosmology – the study of the universe as a whole – as a somewhat suspect science, because to be able to study the universe objectively you either have to be outside the universe, like God, or take a God-like perspective.

For years, the Soviet Union rejected the big bang theory. I suspect the reasoning was that if the physical world is your ‘god’ and your first cause, then it is tantamount to blasphemy to think about the physical world as having an origin.

In real life, Hawking has been working on a grand unified theory that expresses the relationship of physical forces into one formula. Will that ever be achieved?

It is good to think about such things, but the idea that scientists are on the verge of discovering the big picture is misleading. Even if such a theory could be discovered or devised, it could only be a description; it would not be a creator – it could not create anything.

Many of science’s greatest challenges are not in exotic physics. Even simple mechanical systems have mysteries about them that we can’t capture with standard scientific tools. For instance, mathematical physics works well for two-body systems, such as how the Earth and the Sun relate gravitationally, but can’t usually integrate a three-body system properly, such as the Earth, Sun and Moon.

At best, a unified theory would mathematically capture the behaviour of a few idealised, physical systems. In reality, the material world is much more complex. There is also a whole realm of things that mathematics cannot measure at all, such as sensations, thoughts, relationships and love.

Scientists may yet deliver a more complete theory of some things, but it won’t be a theory of everything.

This interview was conducted by Nigel Bovey and first appeared in The War Cry. It is used here with permission. ©The Salvation Army 2017

Main photo: CERN / Maximilien Brice, Claudia Marcelloni

Photo of Andrew Pinsent: The War Cry / Nigel Bovey